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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I was in conference room eating cake with Mike Doyle of and some co-workers when I first met Bob Fioretti. He burst into our conference room and with the poise of someone who's used to thinking on his meet, immediately asked who we were. After clearly establishing he was in the wrong space, he flung some business cards at us, gave us his talking points and bounded out of the room. This was the first time I was "fioriettied," a phrase that came to mean something akin to being bushwacked by a strong personality in a short period of time.

The second time I was fioriettied was on the picket line at the Congress Hotel. Fioretti strode up to the picket line along with the other various candidates for 2nd Ward Alderman (the incumbent, Madeline Haithcock excepted) and stole the show with an inspiring mini-speech. I was stunned that the man I took for a slick Simpsons character was able to express solidarity with the striking workers in plain, seemingly sincere terms. Mr. Fioretti seemed to be a fresh new voice in city government, someone who could be independent enough to make some real changes along with the rest of the Class of 2007 and the veteran independent aldermen and women. Even his eccentricities seemed to be part of the package of devil may care independence.

Almost a year and a half later, it seems as though the 2nd Ward and the whole city of Chicago is being slowly fiorettied. The Congress Hotel strike continues in its fifth year and the Mayor faces little to no resistance in pushing forth his agenda. Even more disturbingly, it seems that the promise of open government and renewed civic activism that seemed so within reach in April 2007 has fizzled out without even the tragic excitement of a Cubs playoff run. Vote by vote and on issues small and large, the potential of the independent caucus to change the way politics work in this city slowly drained away.

The summer for many University of Chicago is a time to learn a little more about the practical side of life that is rather woefully taught here in the golden rectangle. Two students involved in a community service internship program at the University inadvertently learned a few interesting lessons about city politics when they approached Alderman Fioretti's office about the possibility of putting a shelter up at the Damen and Ogden bus stop in front of Stroger Hospital in the 2nd Ward.

It's pretty obvious that a bus shelter would be quite helpful for the patients and families of Stroger Hospital. Hundreds of people, many of them coming off of 8-10 hour waits in the emergency room, board buses at the stop, which is directly in front of the trauma unit at the hospital. Many of these patients are in various states of distress, whether from surgery or the emotional and physical trauma of an injury, sickness and hospital stay. In one hour, on a normal day, the students counted 21 people waiting at the bus stop, six of whom were in visible physical distress (crutches, etc.). While there are hundreds of issues at Stroger Hospital and in the entire Cook County Health system that need resolution, a bus shelter seems to be a small, but important improvement in the patient experience at Stroger. Given that University of Chicago students are rarely fire-breathing radicals, our two students began the long process of cold calling every agency they could think of that would perhaps be of assistance, the RTA, 311, and were directed time and time again to the alderman's office of the 2nd Ward, the newish home of the aforementioned original Fioretti. The students, knowing the reputation of Fioretti as an independent new style alderman ( but very busy), assumed that they would at least get a hearing, if not a firm commitment.

And their first meeting with Fioretti's staff at his regularly scheduled open office hours (that he had to skip for a meeting), they got the somewhat typical treatment so many Chicagoans are familiar with from aldermanic offices: a little we understand your concern; but it's a long process and there's so many other projects, we have limited funds, have you tried these funding sources, can you get me more information, etc. etc. They were directed to the Mayor's Office on People with Disabilities and the Office of Senior Services, likely because of both offices' long and storied history of building bus shelters for the CTA. The students main request was not a definite commitment to building the bus stop, but that it would be a priority project for the 2nd Ward. They succeeded in getting a follow-up meeting with Fioretti, in which they presented 100 signatures on a petition, about half from 2nd Ward residents and half from citizens working in the 2nd Ward.

And that's when the fioretting happened. Instead of the usual oky-doke that most officials would have given, Fioretti exploded, yelling and spouting some fantastic lines such as: None of these are my constituents. No one in my ward goes to Stroger. (Hmm, probably not from the South Loop, but check the map, Bob, your ward's a bit bigger.) That hospital does nothing for this city. (Sure, let's take it away and see what the University of Chicago, Northwestern and all the other upscale hospitals say.) The Illinois Medical District is the worst corporate neighbor. (Right... because Stroger, bus stop, OK.)

After calming down, Fioretti told the students he had five other bus shelters he needed to build in the ward and that he could pledge $9,000 if the students and Stroger could raise the rest of the money to build the stop.

Setting aside a psychological examination of why Alderman Fioretti felt it necessary to tear into two students about a bus shelter, there are at least two disturbing "take aways" from this story. First, it's a bit disheartening that an alderman elected to undo the unresponsive tradition of politics in the 2nd Ward felt free enough from consequences to treat any constituent or citizen so unprofessionally. Is the real reason that things haven't changed all that much in Chicago after the 2007 elections not the strength of the political machine but the complacency of those who worked so hard to elect and then neglect supposedly independent aldermen? Second, if there ever was an argument against the gigantic white elephant that is the 2016 Olympic bid then it has to be the fact that we're putting up $500 million of public money for it while we have a $400 million dollar budget deficit and six bus shelters would break an alderman's budget. And by the way, that $500 million isn't even close to how much it will cost to even run the games: estimates range from $2 billion to $3 billion just for the two week event and London's already shelled out $1 billion for security for the games in 2012. Setting aside ideological battles over the free market, it does seem somewhat ridiculous that the students were encouraged to raise private money to build the shelter. Does this mean we're moving towards a municipal order in which University of Chicago undergraduate students get a bus shelter before their dorm is even completed while the poor and working class are condemned to wait in the rain and snow because, well, they just couldn't find the right foundation to support them?

It seems we're all being fiorettied and still standing agape at the sight.

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MIke Doyle / September 3, 2008 4:34 AM

Two points, Plankmaker (I miss calling you that--it was fun to work together!):

1. If you recall, that was my office birthday party that Fioretti bounded in on, and he begged for cake, too. As I blogged here, he didn't get any.

2. As for his behavior, with the two hapless students or otherwise...maybe he just needs to up the meds? Or get on them in the first place? Three letters, Plankmaker (I miss calling you that--it was fun to work together!): ADD.

Carl / September 6, 2008 11:42 PM

I'm with you on this one Jacob! Fioretti is just a puppet for useless, selfish community groups. Clearly he is enamored with the somewhat pathetic power he wields in office. I have been thoroughly disappointed with his leadership and visibility regarding pressing issues of the 2nd ward and the city as a whole. I've promised my wife that if this guy is still alderman when I turn 35, I'm going to run against him and take him down.

C-Note / September 8, 2008 4:03 PM

Good luck, Carl!


About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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